DIY College

This is the first day in over a month, when I’m the only person in the house. No in-laws, husband, teen, or a college kid needing three meals a day. It takes a big block of time to get serious work done. An hour here and there don’t add up to many words. I’m relishing this moment and making plans for myself for this spring.

My chore chart isn’t completely clean. We have to start the paperwork to assume guardianship of Ian. I have to sign him up for ACT and SAT testing. We need some repairs on the exterior of the house. I already got one quote and am having heart failure about that number. I also am helping Jonah out with some college stuff.

When we sent Jonah off to college two and half years ago, Steve and I thought we were done with parenting. We assumed his college experience was going to be like ours. Our parents hauled our stuff to the college and then really had nothing to do with us until Christmas break. They checked in every three days, but that was about it.

Yeah, that was an error. Jonah ended up needing a lot more help, because the college was massive with so little oversight over the kids that he got a bit lost that first semester. So, we readjusted our approach to him and now we’re more hands on.

Just for an example, let’s talk about housing. His college doesn’t have enough dorms for all its students. In his freshman year, he lived in dorms that hadn’t been renovated in decades. There was no air conditioning, so he couldn’t sleep for two weeks during a late fall heatwave. So, like most sophomores he moved to an off-campus slum.

This slum creates all sorts of hassles for Jonah. Jonah got stuck being the guy who was responsible for the electricity and internet bills. He had to shake down the other five roommates every month to pay the bills. Time suck. They had a guy who somehow ended up living on their sofa all last year without paying rent. This year, they made him take an official room, when someone moved out, but the sofa kid stopping paying rent. So, the landlord made them evict him yesterday. Meetings, phone calls, time suck.

The toilet broke last year. The kids had to jiggle the handle to make the water stop running. They told the landlord, and he did nothing. Then they went away for the summer. The last kid who used the toilet didn’t jiggle the handle, so the water ran in the toilet all summer. The landlord wants them to pay the $2,000 water bill. They’re fighting it. Time suck.

As un upperclassman, he has a chance of getting a good number in the school lottery to get better housing next year. It’s a great building with A/C, wifi, study lounges, and exercise room, but the guys that he was going to live with can’t afford the 10K per year cost, so they want to find another slum. Looking at housing = time suck.

Housing is such an issue at his school that private developers have stepped in to build dorms around the college. A new place is opening in the fall, but it’s going cost too much for his frugal friends.

I spent some time looking at this private dorm. (Here it is.) I was kinda surprised that colleges were working with private developers to make their dorms for them now. It’s a pain for the students, because it’s a full year lease, and students don’t have any support from the school, if one of their roommates flakes out. If Jonah does the spring semester abroad, then he’ll have to find a replacement for himself. (Time suck.)

I guess these private developer-college arrangements are more common. My cousin’s kid in Floria lives in one of those dorms. I might spend the morning asking around about them.

The other big Jonah job for the week is help him with a summer internship. More on that later.

37 thoughts on “DIY College

      1. Our number two moved home this year – we are about 30 minutes from campus, there are no coin boxes on the washing machine, home cooked meals whenever he has time to eat with us… Jonah’s commute would be right around an hour, right? You could think about it…


      2. ds wrote, “Our number two moved home this year – we are about 30 minutes from campus, there are no coin boxes on the washing machine, home cooked meals whenever he has time to eat with us… Jonah’s commute would be right around an hour, right? You could think about it…”

        Yeah. Dorm social experience, blah blah blah…but it’s SO expensive.

        Our oldest will be living at home her freshman year, as we’re walking distance to campus. We have told her that we can afford one year of campus housing. (Local off-campus housing ranges from skeevy to palatial.) We have given the usual talk about how if she wants to live on campus more than one year, she can work and pay for it herself–but at the moment she doesn’t want to.

        We are in the process of proving to the college that our oldest actually lives at our house, which is kind of a pain.

        I believe parking can also be very expensive in some areas for commuter students.


  1. I’m also looking forward to my first day for a while with the house to myself . Kiddo returned to college yesterday after a month at home (and on vacation).

    I was pretty independent in college (but at a tiny college where the housing functioned as a community, though not one with adult oversight). However, I’m pretty sure that all parents, at all colleges are much more involved than they were 30 years ago. Your descriptions and the ones I read on the parent FB page for my kiddo’s college are my anecdotal sources.

    Say, for example, is the massiveness of his school really more significant than your school? I first took classes at a huge state university. I do not believe that the school provided more supports then than now. What it did do, on the other hand, was only cost $500/quarter. So, failure wasn’t burning money. I think a lot of parent interventions stem from the cost of failure (in simple dollars, but also in more complicated consequences, including the fear that any imperfection will have long range consequences).

    My dorms didn’t have air conditioning and neither does my child’s (also, neither does our house, which is becoming semi unusual in my neck of the woods, but still not implausible). I’m expecting kiddo to deal with it. I think some kids (certainly mine) are growing up in pretty generous worlds (houses, heir own rooms, cleaners, daily food service of their desired foods, laundry — my kids get the first three, but not the last two) and college is an adjustment.


  2. Clicking through on the housing is interesting.

    I think individual leases are vital for a lot of arrangements — I wouldn’t be able to handle being the one in charge of the payments unless I was willing to just pay for it all if anything went wrong.

    I knew someone who tried to rent to college students, and in her neck of the woods, individual leases were the norm (even for rooms in individual houses). So she had to shoulder the risk, as the landlord. It didn’t work for her — too much management involved.


  3. Spending some more time at the private dorm housing you linked to. Wifi & cable included; how about water, electricity, and heat? How does the pricing compare to other situations?

    Your description of your son’s “frugal” friends links to the article I read (but can’t find now) on students at UT Austin and the residential separations that are occurring because of off campus/private housing. The kids with resources are picking the private “dorms” near the school (like the one you linked to, which doesn’t sound that expensive to people like me and maybe you) while the poorer kids are being locked out of nearby housing and are living 30-50 minutes away. And, as you point out, rich kids have rich friends (probably, and if they don’t, might decide to if they can’t live where they want with other friends). And then, we get the same kind of increasing homogenization at college, too, even state universities that have a broader array of economics (like UT Austin).


  4. Look into co-op living. It’s way cheap (usually a building made of cinder blocks, or an old building), lots of frugal international students, usually very near campus, shared chores which is great, communal bathrooms, which I think people of this age ought to be fine with, and 9-month leases instead of year-round. Our daughter’s did not have AC, but she also didn’t grow up with it, so fans were fine.


    1. What is the difference, between co op living and J’s group house experience? I feel like coops might have the same failures of the commons. In Beverley Cleary’s description of her coop, there was a paid “house mother” with enforcement powers, but I find it difficult to imagine that authoritarian system working now.


      1. The coops I’m familiar with (mostly my daughter’s, but a few others by word of mouth) have codes of conduct and a waiting list (not surprisingly, because they are so reasonable and so accessible to campus). The groups that live there are, of course, self-selected to be those who are fine with spartan accommodations and no amenities except a laundry room in the basement. They do have Wi-fi. My daughter’s was quite large; more like a dorm, and was all-female (an all-male one was across the street). A nonprofit owned the building and (I would guess) had the power to remove anyone who was seriously derelict in their responsibilities, but there was no on-site supervision. The women elected leaders, and hired a cook who made dinners five days a week. Otherwise, all used the big fridge and stove in the kitchen. They rotated cleaning chores, and it’s not that hard to clean buildings made aof cinderblock, linoleum, and with institutional bathrooms. I should note: you had to be a junior, senior, or grad students. So a better level of maturity than in dorms. This place was a godsend for her after 2 years in a huge, noisy, smelly dorm, and the bonus was that it was much cheaper too.


      2. It’s really variable by co-op. Back in the dawn of time, I lived in a tightly organized, well-run co-op. No real adult supervision, but we had a clean, well-maintained house and a respectable meal on the table seven nights a week. Problematic behavior got sorted out through house meetings, but there wasn’t all that much. And the same place is still running, almost thirty years later.

        My daughter is in college now, herself in a co-op, and it’s chaos. I mean, no worse than an apartment shared with roommates might be, but no one’s running the place. So, you can’t tell unless you know the specific co-op.



        Here’s a description of the co-op my daughter lived in. Looks as if they have a guy cooking these days, and you get lunch too. $4792.00 per school year, room and board included. It looks as if the building is now owned by the University, which rents to the student organization that runs it.


  5. I would happily live in that dorm–the price for a comparable apartment to where I live now is approximately what my rent is, and my rent doesn’t include wifi! Let alone an outdoor kitchen, gym, etc.


  6. Who’s going to be paying for a room in a rundown house in Ithaca *and* housing for the semester in Spain at the same time? Yep, this girl. The housemates in S’s house had issues with a weird roommate last year, so now they are picky about who might be subletting, which leads to me having to pay double. (Also, she has already re-upped her lease for next academic year). I should get S under contract now to agree to pay for my nursing home in the future as payback.
    S is back in Ithaca now for a week because she hates being at home. I am hoping her hatred of being home will be sufficient motivation for her to pursue an internship next summer.
    E has applied to 4 of 6 colleges, with the last 2 due Feb 1, so of course he doesn’t have to submit the apps till Jan 31. *eyeroll*. He will never be bored at home as long as he has wifi and his Switch, so I think I am stuck with him forever. 😀


    1. How are these kids going to transition to supporting themselves? I think about it a lot, like whenever I decide my kid needs shoes and send her some. She is personally very frugal, but that trends to not buying shoes. I don’t *think* her behavior is purely determined by the fact that I buy her shoes when she complains that her feet are cold, but it certainly must have an effect.

      (hence my musings on Meghan & Harry)


      1. Aw dang, I should have known that putting the attempted cleverness in brackets would get it parsed as HTML.

        Here’s what I meant to say:

        (Looks at own shoes, which are at least 12 years old.)



    2. Wendy wrote,

      “Who’s going to be paying for a room in a rundown house in Ithaca *and* housing for the semester in Spain at the same time?”

      “Oh, man.”

      “E has applied to 4 of 6 colleges, with the last 2 due Feb 1, so of course he doesn’t have to submit the apps till Jan 31.”

      4 down!


  7. Is it a time suck for you or for him? If it is for you, I would push him to take care of it (and let him fail – this is relatively low stakes). If it is a time suck for him, well, it really isn’t, since it is part of his education. He should learn it now while he has more (and more flexible) time available to call or meet with the landlord, etc. He will likely end up dealing with lazy landlords and bad roommates even once he is out of college, and it shouldn’t be your job to fix it Laura.


      1. Laura said,

        “I have made this case over and over. Sigh.”

        It seems like a hidden cost of the “cheap” off-campus housing.


    1. oh, time suck for jonah. He does all this stuff on his own. I just think its a massive waste of time, because I want him to be spending as much time as possible in the library.


      1. If he wasn’t doing that would he actually be at the library? I’m sure it is a good excuse, but he is a young man and there are lots of other distractions.


    2. Is it really low stakes? I think that’s always the difficult question for parents. Failing a term in college is not low stakes, at a cost of $40K (and, further consequences). Doing poorly might also be high stakes. And, in my affluent neck of the woods, kids who are doing “poorly” sometimes withdraw from school, planning on returning later so that they can optimize their transcripts/CVs. I don’t know what the threshold is, but C’s, certainly, and for some it might even be B’s consider withdrawing from school (though, of course, I don’t know what all the factors are).


      1. I’m referring to failing at managing the house and bills, which is relatively low stakes now compared to what it could be in the future.


      2. Tulip said, “I’m referring to failing at managing the house and bills, which is relatively low stakes now compared to what it could be in the future.”

        The $2,000 water bill was pretty stiff, but yeah.

        It sounds like this has been a very educational experience.


  8. I agree with Tulip, though it sounds like this is mostly falling on Jonah (hence DIY as opposed to HYMDI – Have Your Mom Do It). Either way, I am anxiously awaiting the post-college, “How Much Our Budget College Really Cost” article which factors in all of these things – private dorms, having to pay someone else’s utilities (vs. the fancy college figuring out all that for you), time you spent on the phone with the registrar/advisor, etc.

    Very important for those who room with slovenly young men to learn NOT to be the utilities guy. Also, everyone needs to know how to turn off the water to a toilet that leaks!

    In the 80s, even the fanciest dorms did not have a/c. I spent a summer in one, for a Russian language program at Indiana U, with only a fan. Man was that unpleasant. But you get used to it.


    1. yup. it’s jonah, not me, doing this stuff. I’m pushing for his return to a dorm, so I did make some phone calls to get some info.


    2. Or, just fix it. Fixing a running toilet (that can be stopped by jiggling the handle) is easy and cheap. The most time consuming part is going to the hardware store.


      1. Tulip said,

        “Or, just fix it. Fixing a running toilet (that can be stopped by jiggling the handle) is easy and cheap. The most time consuming part is going to the hardware store.”

        There is that.

        It’s technically not the tenant’s job, but it is a simple fix, and Jonah has a lifetime of weekend plumbing ahead of him, so might as well learn now!


      2. Of course it is the landlord’s job. But, he hasn’t done it. So pick your battles – is something that cheap and easy worth the fight? It would have averted the big water bill (and subsequent argument) – was it worth it to hold out for the landlord to do it?


  9. I’ve been reading a lot of ADHD books lately, and one thing they say is that ADHD kids need substantial handholding and supervision in college, at least for the first year.

    Presumably that applies (although a bit less so) to ADHD-ish kids.


  10. Parents may be providing a lot of structure and reminders in high school that ADHD (or ADHD-ish) kids genuinely need. Given a novel, unstructured, less-forgiving environment, ADHD (and ADHD-ish) kids may need support more in college than in high school.


  11. My kids lived in dorms and off campus. One reason both of them chose to move off campus was to get away from (considers comment moderation) smoke in the dorms. Not cigarette smoke. Our kids have friends who saved quite a bit of money by avoiding the college meal plan; if the city or town has Uber services, it’s easier to go grocery shopping than it was back in the day.

    I don’t think that practicing living independently is a time suck. At different times, we’ve had to talk our kids through how to deal with landlords.

    At this point, I’m starting to run into people who are surprised our college graduates are living independently. (!) I gather most 22+ young adults are still on their parents’ health plans, Netflix plans, and cell phone plans. (Even young adults who could easily afford to pay for those things themselves.)

    The university’s costs on the page Laura linked seem competitive to apartments for rent in the area, according to online sources I found with a quick search. It is probably more expensive for a university to offer it, because they may be liable under social host laws to police things like drinking or bad behavior in the dorms. I don’t know New Jersey’s laws, so YMMV. At any rate, private apartment developers might be more efficient than faculty committees at providing housing for young adults.

    I have mentioned before on this site that I believe the US has not built enough housing over the last 40 years. I can recommend Scott Alexander’s summary of the issues on the West Coast. I am in sympathy with the YIMBY movement, which causes stress when I try to discuss it with older relatives.


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